Colorado River at Lees Ferry
For a few miles, US Alt-89 travels north, seeking the perfect spot to, at long last, cross the treacherous Colorado River. Engineers found a good place for a bridge at Marble Canyon, and back in 1927, they began construction on Navajo Bridge (more on that in a moment). Before the bridge, a ferry was the only way to cross the Colorado, and for many miles around, the only stretch of river with waters calm enough to allow for ferry service was also right here at Marble Canyon.
Just a few hundred feet before you reach Navajo Bridge, watch for a turnoff to the left, which leads you into the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
The scenery here is nothing short of remarkable, especially on a sunny day when the sky is blue, the rocks are blazing red, and the Colorado River is a cool turquoise. That's the river, by the way, just below the cliff. As you enter the area, you'll find several places where you can drive directly up to the edge of the river--something you can't do anywhere else for hundreds of miles in either direction.
Lees Ferry is technically the very start of the Grand Canyon. So, when you're standing alongside the Colorado River, you're technically standing at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Only one other road (that I know of) allows you the same privilege: the Diamond Creek Road, on the Hualapai Indian Reservation.
Drive to the end of the road, and you'll find a trail that leads from the parking lot to the actual site of the Lees Ferry river crossing. Along the way, you'll pass a couple of historic old buildings. The first one is locked shut...
... while the second one is partially collapsed, allowing you to walk "inside", and look out the old windows at the scenery.
A little further up the trail, there's the iron remains of an old steam engine. This is not the one that was used to power the ferry (that one is still in the water).
The trail continues alongside the Colorado River. It's hard to believe that Page, Arizona (and the Glen Canyon Dam) are just about 10 miles away, and Horseshoe Bend is only about half that distance, but it will still take about another 45 minutes of driving to get there.
Watch the banks of the river closely, to spot the sunken remains of the old ferry. The trail continues upstream, but I turned around here. When I arrived back at the car, the temperature gauge read 116, and I was still wearing the same jeans that I had put on, to brave the cold at the Grand Canyon, some ten hours earlier!
Here's a brief history lesson on Lees Ferry. The ferry service was started in 1872, and continued until the completion of Navajo Bridge around 1929. John Lee established the ferry service, on orders from the LDS Church. The Mormon Church bought the ferry service from Emma Lee, John's wife, in 1879, and operated it until 1910, when the territory of Arizona took it over.†
The area surrounding Lees Ferry lies within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and is maintained and operated by the National Park Service. As such, there is an admission fee, payable at a self service station along the entrance road. For more information, check out the NPS website.
Once you've made it back to the main road, hang a left, and within mere moments, you'll be at the end of Navajo Bridge. There's a visitor's center and parking area here, and you can walk across the older of the two spans.
The original Navajo Bridge is on the left (completed in 1929). The newer, wider, and stronger--but virtually identical--bridge is on the right.
Just moments earlier, I was standing at the edge of the Colorado River. Now, it's virtually unreachable, at the bottom of a steep canyon.
The view of the new road, from the old road.
The new bridge may look almost identical to the old one, but it's not. The old bridge is about 75 feet shorter, and the road deck is less than half that of its successor: 18 feet wide, versus 44 feet. The new bridge was completed in 1995, at a cost of $14.7 million--a heck of a lot more than the original, $390,000 structure.†
As you continue on up US Alt-89...
... you won't find many more signs of life. There's an occasional abandoned Native American jewelry stand, but that's about it. Just like before, you're driving along another stretch of flat desert floor, staring up at another long stretch of cliffs, that seem impossible to climb. Alt-89 finally ends, you make a left onto US 89, and suddenly you realize you're about to do the impossible.
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